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Filling in gaps of global studies at the Africa institute, Sharjah

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The Africa Institute’s Campus design by David Adjaye<br />PHOTO: Courtesy The Africa Institute


The Africa Institute design’s unveiling in Sharjah, UAE, has attracted global attention. Designed by U.K-based architect, David Adjaye OBE, the 31, 882-square-meter campus was said to have been in the making since 2017.
 
Sharjah is not exactly new to African contents, so explains the 40-year-old monument, Africa Hall, built in the heart of the city, affirming an aspect of Afro-Gulf relationship. The Adjaye’s design, however, brings contemporaneity in the two continents’ vision of the new relationship in academic venture.
 
There are quite a large number of institutions within Africa and outside the continent offering studies on the people’s history and diaspora. Any addition to the number of such institutions outside the continent should be bringing something fresh to the table.

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For The Africa Institute, its contents and academic dispensary should be firmly built on strong pedestal to generate wider interest across the world.  The Africa Institute President, Hoor Al Qasimi argued that so many “gaps” to be filled as regards the history of Africa, specifically, in relation to the Gulf region, gives the Sharjah-based institution an edge.
 
“There are major gaps in research and understanding of the historical and contemporary relationships between Africa and the Gulf – a dimension that is vital to understanding either region,” Al Qasimi responded to The Guardian’s quearion after the unveiling of the design. “The Africa Institute specifically aims to build scholarship and forge connections between scholars in this area.” 
 
She explained the mission of The Africa Institute to include acting “as a force multiplier and forge further linkages between scholars and organizations in Latin America, South and East Asia, and locations across the Global South.” Studies in Africa, Al Qasimi stated, should be of global interest for better understanding. She described such focus as “global, interconnected approach,” of which “is absolutely critical to understanding Africa and its diaspora.”
 
In 2019, The Africa Institute was formally announced at Africa Hall, Sharjah. Scholars from within Africa and the diaspora converged and presented volumes of papers on the theme ‘Global Africa: Africa and African Diaspora Studies.’ 

Two years after, the gradual building of the campus took off with the unveiling of the design. At the unveiling, Al Qasimi hosted the Director of The Africa Institute, Salah Hassan and architect, Adjaye, who made presentations.

The speakers, in separate responses after the unveiling, highlighted quite more of the contents. Areas of interest included contentious terminologies for African and diaspora studies, freshness into the academia of African discourse outside the continent and appropriation of native value in the design for the campus, among others.
 
African studies, particularly of the sub-Saharan, covertly, still deny some parts of the native diverse traditional religions. Yes, there are quite some vast resources on the subject of traditional African faiths within the subsisting academia, home and the diaspora, but more exist that are yet to be brought into the academic net. What’s the fresh approach of The Africa Institute in recovering lost culture about the efficacy of traditional African values of old, for examples, in medicine, politics and technology across tribes?

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“Yes, our approach to African studies will involve historical and contemporary research on recovering lost cultures about the efficacy of traditional values and belief systems in relation to medicine, politics and technology across African communities as our vision of Africa is global and encompasses both so-called North and Sub-Saharan Africa,” Hassan stated. “This is based on our conviction that many so-called traditional practices are actually based on empirical evidence and trial and error as it is the same with modern science and technology.”
 
For diversity of application and appropriation, quite a number of terms in expressing Africa and its sub-Saharan context have been found to be highly contentious. The Africa Institute, which has been described as a space for critical discourses and dialogues on Africa and African Diaspora studies, seems to have more to divulge.

Hassan, a Goldwin Smith Professor and Director of the Institute for Comparative Modernity also have issues with terms being used loosely. “Having said the above, allow me to express my own critical reservation about terms/concepts such as ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ and ‘tribes’ as problematic concepts, which represent residues of the colonial enterprise within African studies.” He explained the vision of The Africa Institute as something of “complex, diverse and fluid, as well as global.” Like some scholars and institutes too, who are, perhaps, seems to be correcting perception, The Africa Institute, according to Hassan, has a duty to put things in proper perspective.

“Hence, we do have reservations about the traditional divide (North/Sub-Saharan) prevalent in African studies and politics, which in our view is artificial and arbitrary to say the least.”

He argued that in historical and contemporary context, there are facts of “cross-cultural influences between the two than assumed, and each part has proven to be historically diverse and hybrid as the other.”   
 
As a geographical expression, North Africa and the sub-Saharan divides, Hassan insisted, does not blur the natural commonality or similarity in culture. “Moreover, the Sahara as a geographical divide has never been (or translated into) a real cultural barrier between North and Sub-Saharan Africa.”

He cited as example, how ancient mode of transportation such as trans-Saharan caravans “brought Islam and other cultural influences” to the continent.

The similarities between North Africa and its sub-Saharan as reeled out by Hassan are as rich as the contentious garment cladded over the issue.

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“These were also compounded by commercial exchange including gold or other luxury goods, in addition to slavery. The same in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, which brought traditional African religions and belief systems in North Africa, and in the process, has shaped the historical and contemporary realities of North Africa in religious beliefs, ritual and musical cultures such as Gnawa music in Morocco.

The same concept of ‘tribes’, which is a creation of colonial cultural anthropology, and which glosses over the dynamics ‘intertribal’ relationship and cultural exchange between communities of people (for example Yoruba, Igbo among others, have interacted with each others and borrowed religious, technical of artistic from each over a long history interaction.”

In essence, Hassan favoured what he argued as more effective  terminologies such as “people” “ethnic group” or “communities” compared to using “tribe” which, he described as “ahistorical and less dynamic term.”
 
Earlier, Hassan, in his speech during the unveiling of the design has disclosed that The Africa Institute’s Library archives will not duplicate the same contents that Africans inherited from the colonial era. Among such contents for The Africa Institute’s library, he said, are named as Ali Mazrui Archive and Okwui Enwezor Archive, adding that partly, some from British Museums will still be taken in.  

Adjaye, who is of Ghanaian descent is not a strange name in global architectural space. In fact, one of his works is a. holding known as Alara, on Akin Olugbade in Victoria Island, Lagos, Alara, a multiplex facility is quite amazing really, in space management. However, more emphasis on darkened colours seems to create cloudy effect to a crowded environment in need of brightness. For the Africa Institute campus design,  what are the motifs, perhaps that depict the African texture, in aesthetics and functionality?
 
“In Africa, our geography is unique in the way that you have the experience of, for example, the desert, the forest, or the grasslands within a single continent,” Adjaye replied. “So there is the possibility of learning how to build within each landscape—something our ancestors already did.” He explained that the design for the Africa Institute “brings together vernacular architectural elements of the past as well as a deep understanding of what it means to construct within the desert climate of Sharjah.”

Acording to a statement that previewed the design, ithe architectural plan features five wings between four and seven stories each, connected by a series of open-air interior courtyards that span the first and ground floors and feature fountains and landscaping with native plants. Entryways on each of its four façades will welcome the public and connect The Africa Institute with surrounding institutions and public walkways.

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“In terms of color use, the low carbon, pigmented concrete— which uses an iron-oxide rich earth — is a reference to West Africa where the iron-oxide is more abundant. This creates an organic hybridity and facilitates an understanding through the architecture that brings the pigment of the continent into a new spatiality.”
 
The architecture of the host community, Sharjah, and its history blend with African identity, Adjaye told the preview audience earlier. The presentation, which was in stills and animation took the audience through the ground floor and middle level, showing the plaza and courtyard.. He noted that “it’s a completely different project from what I have done before.” 
 
Al Qasimi: recalled how “Sallah and I had the conversation in 2016 and got in touch with David in 2017” The construction of the campus, “hopefully starts next summer.”
 
The Institute is established in Sharjah because Africa is a global enterprise’ and not just a narrow interest confined to geographical areas, Hassan told audience during the unveiling via zoom gathering.  First set of classes, it was disclosed, have been scheduled to start in 2023 with postgraduate studies. Sallah hoped that the classes start with with 25 to 30 students. over five years.” Meanwhile, some programmes, they explained, have started in partnership with UK-based Tate Modern, among others.
 
Speaking on the library for the  institute, Al Qasimi disclosed how her “career has been influenced by Okwui.” She enthused: “We are happy to receive the Okwui archive.”. 
 
Adding to the Okwui connection, Sallah recalled how himself, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Olu Oguibe, among others,”are part of the same generation,” of scholars who have “been changing things long before now.”

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